Saturday, March 28, 2009

Jesus Take the Wheel?

There’s a wretched country song called “Jesus Take the Wheel” written and performed, I presume, by someone whose IQ equals her dress size. For those of you fortunate enough to have been spared exposure to this cringe-fest, here’s the Reader’s Digest version: a woman is driving home for the holidays with her infant in the backseat. She drives too fast for the road conditions, hits a patch of ice and starts to skid out of control. Instead of turning the wheel in the direction of the skid and slowly reducing speed, she somehow thinks it’s a wise idea to simply let go of the steering wheel and ask Jesus to drive. Luckily, in the world of country music, this is apparently the proper way to handle such a situation and needless to say, Country-Music-Jesus has driving abilities on par with the stunt drivers at Disney World. The car miraculously stops safely on the side of the road and mother and child are safe. Amen.

Oh… and as if that isn’t bad enough, the song tries to rhyme the words “daddy” and Cincinnati”.

I guess the woman’s actions in this instance are supposed to be admirable as a testament of faith or some such thing. In a fictional song they can get away with crap like that. But what would happen if this was tried in a reality-based environment?

Sadly, we now know. Due to an incorrect gauge, a commuter jet flying from Italy to Tunisia ran out of fuel shortly after leaving the airport. In such a situation, the pilot is supposed to locate the nearest runway and attempt an emergency landing. In this case, however, the pilot panicked, let go of the controls and started praying instead. Jesus either DIDN’T take the wheel or the Lord needs a refresher course in aviation because the jet crash-landed off the coast of Sicily killing 16 passengers.

The pilot has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for dereliction of duty. Deservedly so, in my opinion.

This once again is evidence supporting the contention that blind faith in the supernatural is dangerous. In fictional country songs, letting “Jesus take the wheel” leads to miraculous life-changing happy endings. In the real world, innocent people end up dead and those doing the praying are exposed as criminally incompetent morons.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


What a Friday night...

My darling daughter…uh… “became a woman” as they euphemistically say. Leanne wasn’t expecting this development quite so soon and was quickly explaining all the “details” to her...

...just before she left to go for a planned “girls night out”, leaving me with a grumpy and emotional 11-year-old.

Being a guy I figured “ignore it and it will all go away” was a perfectly sound and prudent philosophy.

No such luck.

“I’m sad”, Maddie confided to me later in the evening.

Uh-oh. Red alert! Deny everything!
Wait! Maybe she’s sad about something ELSE! Maybe Leanne didn’t let Maddie know that I knew.

Maybe I can crawl into a hole.

“Why are you sad?” I asked, naively hoping the answer would be something… ANYTHING… else.

“You KNOW why! I know Mom told you!”

Oh SHIT! Damned women! Why must they conspire against me? And NOW what do I say? This is a situation where I imagine saying the wrong thing could result in decades of therapy sessions for my little girl… er… woman… er…female offspring. I scour my brain for something comforting while not downplaying this important change in her life. Come on brain! Give me something!!! Hello? Brain? BRAIN??? Okay… how ‘bout my heart? Got something compassionate for me? What? You mean all you REALLY do is circulate blood? NOW you tell me! Besides, the whole “blood” thing is a rather sensitive topic right now. Shit… I’ve got NOTHING!!!

“Uh… well… this is all new to you now. You’ll get used to it!”

THAT’S all I’ve got? I have an IQ that supposedly qualifies me for membership in Mensa as well as a command of language I imagine is at least slightly above average and THAT’S all I can come up with???

“Dad! That didn’t help and I’m still sad.”

Total brain lock. Panic mode. Pulse rising… sweat beads forming… Mayday! Mayday! Bail!!! BAIL!!!!

“Uh… maybe mom will be home soon. She knows more about that stuff.”

If only I were a Taliban dad in the wilds of Afghanistan... I’d know it was time to toss a Burkha over her for the rest of her life and tell her she could no longer continue her education. It’s stupid and medieval and all… but unlike me at least that dad knows what he’s expected to DO! Not only that, the Taliban dad probably has access to some killer opiates. Oh how I envy him!

I know... all you women can start your "all men are pigs" attacks, but I suspect all the guys who have faced this situation will know what I'm talking about.

All the guys except Alan Alda. Somehow, I get the feeling he would come up with the perfect, sensitive and life-validating thing to say in such a situation.

But I'm afraid the rest of us guys merely provide job security for future generations of psychoanalysts.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Things the Millpond Taught Me

I spent my formative years growing up along the shore of the Fenton Millpond. Although I didn’t appreciate it then, that millpond taught me a lot about life.

It taught me about patience and about nature. My lifelong love of dragonflies and damselflies can be traced to my hours watching them dart along the shore and over the still water. Their fragile multicolored beauty taught me that a slow silent contemplation of ones surroundings can often be one of the best ways to learn.

I also spent many hours rowing upstream in our sky-blue rowboat, gliding gently above the silent lily pads and duckweed. I spent many a summer's day going ashore and exploring what then were glorious open fields and undisturbed wetlands. And which are now condos and subdivisions. (Although an atheist, I sometimes fantasize that the damage some of these homes sustained in the recent Fenton tornado was a sort of divine retribution for ruining such a beautiful place.)

It was on one such rowing excursion during the 1970’s I learned that people in power don’t always tell the truth. Some in the local government swore there was no raw sewage being emptied into the Fenton Millpond. One year, however, they lowered the water level to do work on the East street bridge. This exposed a drainage pipe at the end of Lemen Street– only visible from the middle of the lowered pond – from which a mixture of foul-smelling goop and soggy toilet paper were being discharged. So if I now sometimes take the word of civic leaders with a less-than-trusting attitude, perhaps this incident will explain why.

But, to me, perhaps the most valuable lesson the millpond taught me was about the value of stirring things up and the dangers of stagnation. The parts of the river upstream where the water flowed freely and was agitated by rocks and bends in the channel were clear and healthy. The lower parts of the millpond, however, where the water sat undisturbed, soon became clogged by weeds which then died from lack of oxygen and resulted in a stagnant, smelly quagmire. The lesson I got out of it was that sometimes things HAVE to be stirred up in order to keep them alive and thriving. Stopping agitation leads to stagnation. And stagnation leads to death.

This applies, I think, not only to the millpond, but also to society and to life itself. It is for that reason I tend to sympathize with society’s hell raisers. I don’t view them, as some people do, as troublemakers, but rather as people who are providing the vital and necessary service of “stirring up the waters” and keeping our world from becoming too stagnant. They are, in short, the very ones who are making our culture flow and are keeping society alive.

Those who complain about people who are constantly “making waves” should realize that those very waves are what we need to keep our cities and towns active and invigorated.

So make waves. Stir things up. Raise a bit of hell for a good cause. It will make our world better. It will keep us thriving. I know it’s true. The millpond told me so.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The General Motors Cargo Cult

The current uncertainty over the future of General Motors hangs like a cloud over the Flint area. People are concerned about the impact a possible GM bankruptcy will have on the local economy, which to me seems somewhat like wondering about the environmental impact of pissing into a cesspool of raw sewage.
While I honestly hope GM can pull out of this having learned a valuable lesson about building quality innovative transportation products that people will actually want to buy and that values long-term planning over short-term profits, I must admit there’s a part of me that wonders whether the demise of GM wouldn’t actually be a blessing in disguise for this beleaguered city. I’ve been around long enough to remember not only the tail end of the glory days of this community, but also the beginning of the demise of the domestic auto industry and the reaction of the civic leaders to it. Basically, that reaction was “If only we [insert whatever you want here] then General Motors will return and everything will be okay!” If only we buy American. If only we increase tariffs on Japanese imports. If only we give GM tax cuts. If only the UAW wouldn’t demand such stupid things as a living wage and safer working conditions. I’ve heard it all. Repeatedly. For decades.
It began to sound like one of those South Pacific “cargo cults” where the native islanders try prayers, shrines and rituals in hopes the material wealth of cargo brought by US soldiers during World War II would return. We “civilized” people may scoff at the naivety of these Pacific natives, smug in the knowledge that the cargo ain’t coming back and that these islanders are wasting their time. Yet many in this community have acted exactly the same way with regard to General Motors. “If only we…”

General Motors isn’t coming back.

They wanted cheap labor while we wanted an honest wage for honest work. So they and many other formerly domestic manufacturers went elsewhere to build their products. These low-wage foreign workers, though, weren’t able to afford their products. And the American consumer, now faced with lower wages from service sector jobs but still having higher material expectations, had to use more credit to buy the products that used to be manufactured here. And eventually the amount they owed exceeded their ability to pay it back. They maxed out their credit cards, defaulted on their loans and the lending institutions that bankrolled it all started tanking.
I openly acknowledge the fact I am not a financial genius. I console myself, however, with the knowledge that – apparently – neither were the people on Wall Street. I do think, however, there are lessons to be learned from this debacle, First of all, we should forget about General Motors. It was a nice run and it was fun while it lasted, but if you’re waiting for their return to fuel this city’s future prosperity, you’ll be waiting a long, long time. The best hope for this city is entrepreneurship combined with long-term planning and (perish the thought!) an underlying ethic that not only values people over profits, but recognizes that taking care of people can LEAD to profits! To put it simply, if you pay your workers well, they can afford to buy your products. Money will change hands which in turn will lead the economy toward prosperity.
If you can, patronize a local start-up restaurant or small business. They’ll appreciate the business and you might be surprised by what they can offer. And if they become successful, hopefully they will learn from the past and value more than just the bottom line. Sure, I recognize that businesses have to make money and I’m all for them making a fair profit. But the days of the CEO’s making 9-figure salaries while their employees go without health benefits and are paid crap wages have got to end. (As an aside, many employers don’t think they should be directly responsible for the health care costs of their employees. Actually, I agree. I’m for socialized medicine. But that’s another rant for another time.)
I remember a line from the Michel Moore documentary “Sicko” where someone in France described the difference between Europe and the United States. “Here, the government is afraid of the people. In the US, the people are afraid of the government.” Sobering but true. While I don’t advocate violence in the streets, or ANY violence, for that matter, I do think people need to wake up and start raising a little more hell. We’ve been far too quiet for far too long.
We need to wake up to the fact that tribal dances won’t bring the Marines back to Polynesia and that “If only we…” won’t bring General Motors back to Flint. We need to rely on ourselves. We need to work together.
The future is unwritten. Let’s go out there and kick some ass!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The End of Idiotocracy?

I am hoping, perhaps naively, that the anti-science anti-intellectual feelings that had permeated much of the higher echelons of the American government are finally being swept into the trash bin.

As has been documented in books such as Chris Mooney’s “The Republican War on Science”, the late Bush administration not only downplayed the importance of science in informing policy decisions on complex issues, but that administration was openly hostile to science itself. They seemed to prefer simple reflexive answers to more thoughtful nuanced analysis and creative problem solving.

There are, of course, still a lot of stupid people in places of influence and a lot of stupider people willing to follow them. Why is that?

I don’t think the United States has a disproportionate number of stupid people. I simply feel the stupid people we have wield a disproportionate amount of power and influence.

Part of the problem, I think, can be traced to the American preoccupation with fairness. We often feel it necessary to give “equal time” to “both sides” of any given issue. While on the surface this tendency is well-intentioned and admirable, it misses a crucial point: in the scientific arena some ideas are simply better and are backed up by far more evidence than others. Evolution, for example. Any objective analysis of the evidence will show conclusively that evolution is the theory most consistent with the observed facts in an overwhelming number of scientific disciplines. Creationism and “intelligent design”? Not even close.

Yet, it is still felt by many that these “alternate” theories should be given “equal time” out of a sense of “fairness”. But that’s not how science works. A theory is either backed up by the facts or it isn’t. It has to EARN a place in the discussion through evidence. If “intelligent design” can be supported by hard evidence, let’s see it. I, as well as most who value truth, want to know what that truth is, even if it is ugly or inconvenient. In short, if there is evidence out there that some of my beliefs are wrong, I want to know about it. And if the evidence is convincing, I will alter my views to conform to this new knowledge.

Strangely, those who arrogantly think they know everything generally turn out to be the real idiots. Those with real brains readily concede they may be wrong.

I’m hearing whispers that “brains are back”. I certainly hope so!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

March Haiku

Snow melts on brown grass.
Between decay and new birth
Seasons stop to rest.